Calder Cup Playoffs: Western Conference, Round 1

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Yesterday, the East were profiled and now it’s time for the Western Conference, as top-seeded Utica starts off the conference against the Chicago Wolves in some pretty even match-ups through and through.

(1) Utica Comets vs. (8) Chicago Wolves

One of the cornerstones of the Comets’ big season was the solid goaltending from both Jacob Markstrom and Joacim Eriksson. Both had 22 wins in the regular season and was the big factor for Utica getting the top-seed in the west. Also a key to that was the defense of Bobby Sanguinetti, who also chipped in with 40 points and six power play goals. Offensively, Alexandre Grenier potted 11 of his 17 goals with the extra-man, while Cal O’Reilly lead in scoring with Brandon DeFazio being the only 20-goal scorer on the squad.

Conversely, the Wolves are bringing a lot of scoring to the table, only being nine goals below the Comets overall. Those duties to try and break the Comets goaltending will be the three-headed monster of Shane Harper, Ty Rattie, and Jeremy Welch with Magnus Paajarvi adding his own touch just in time for the playoffs. The Wolves aren’t that bad defensively either, with Brendan Bell‘s acquisition being a strong addition at the deadline to help Jordan Binnington in net. Brent Regner has been solid on both sides of the puck, adding another cavet to the Wolves line-up.

(2) Grand Rapids Griffins vs. (7) Toronto Marlies

With league-leading goal-scorer Teemu Pulkkinen, you can tell that the Griffins are a high-scoring team; especially with Andy Miele on the roster and a possible reappearance by Landon Ferraro. The Griffins are getting help from all angles, though, as they got a lot of help from their youth movement– such as Anthony Mantha and Mark Zengerle— and should be ready to play “next man up” on their roster. That’s most evident from Tom McCollum stepping up in net with Petr Mrazek going to and from Detroit.

TJ Brennan could be the biggest pick-up of the deadline and he has come in to put up 16 points in his 19 games with the Marlies, back in his comfort zone that he made for himself. Brennan’s veteran leadership will help rookies like Connor Brown and Brendan Leipsic as the scoring leaders on the Marlies. There will be a lot of heat on Chris Gibson in net, but with Brennan and Brendan Mikkelson and surprising rookie Viktor Loov; Gibson will get plenty of support.

(3) San Antonio Rampage vs. (6) Oklahoma City Barons

Depth scoring is going to be the key for the Rampage. While Connor Brickley and Bobby Butler led the way, they were able to get key scoring from Garrett Wilson and Logan Shaw in way of goals, with Quinton Howden and Rocco Grimaldi playing the roles as set-up men. One question is whether or not Dan Ellis is the man who is going to help lead the way between the net. Despite Greg Zanon having a solid year as a veteran force, Ellis could be a hot-and-cold guy during the playoffs– which could be the worst time for it.

Since this is their last season in OKC, the Barons are going to try their best in order to prolong the end as much as possible. One of the questions could be who will be the top guy in net– Richard Bachman or Laurent Brossoit. Brossoit has played more games, but Bachman has the better numbers overall. A bigger loss offensively could be the knee-injury that hampered Ilro Pakarinen when he was in Edmonton. That said, Andrew Miller and Jason Williams have been the driving force up front, as Brad Hunt will be the defenseman who will be in charge of most of both offense and defense for the Barons.

(4) Rockford IceHogs vs. (5) Texas Stars

With their first playoff back in a while, the IceHogs are going to rely on their defense in order to win the series. Michael Leighton has been solid while taking over for Scott Darling, while Antti Raanta has been getting his footing underneath him despite his demotion. Rookie blueliners Stephen Johns and Ville Pokka have been solid, especially with TJ Brennan getting traded for Spencer Abbott (who put up 12 goals in 19 games with Rockford). Johns has been solid in his own end, while Pokka has been lethal on the power play with six power play goals.

The defending Calder Cup champs had a rough go about it early in the season, but Travis Morin and the Stars bounced back and have rounded into form at the right time. Morin, Brendan Ranford, and Justin Dowling were solid after a bit of a hiccup, while Jussi Rynnas weathered the storm when Jack Campbell had to readjust his game in the ECHL. One of the bigger issues will be if the defense can stand up the IceHogs offense– as Derek Meech, Maxime Fortunus, and Julius Honka, while contributing to the offense– lacked help in their own end. That said, there’s a decent amount of returnees from last year’s team– so the switch will be flipped as the games get underway.

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The Weekend That Was: March 27th-29th

AHL

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Photo by Chris Marion/Springfield Falcons

-With their backs against the wall during a huge freefall on the the season, the Springfield Falcons were only able to muster one point in their three games; losing two of those to the Worcester Sharks; who have passed them for the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference standings. A lot of this could be attributed to the injuries that the Falcons have had, as well as their parent club in Columbus. One of the main injuries was to Anton Forsberg, who was lights-out in net for the Falcons. The trio of Oscar Dansk, Scott Munroe, and newcomer Joonas Korpisalo haven’t gotten the job done as of yet. With the addition of Sonny Milano to the offense to help combat those call-ups and injuries; the Falcons will really have to dig in to make sure this collapse from the regular season won’t be the last memory of the year.

-With the Eastern Conference having the Sharks surging; the Chicago Wolves have made their way into a playoff spot, despite only being five points up on 12th place Lake Erie. The Wolves swept the home-and-home with the Milwaukee Admirals this weekend and then came back home to beat the Iowa Wild. Jeremy Welsh had three goals and three assists this weekend, with Magnus Paajarvi notching a hat-trick Saturday night, and Ty Rattie putting up two goals and five assists on the weekend. Matt Clime had two book-end wins with Jordan Binnington putting up the win on Saturday.

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ECHL

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-The Stockton Thunder were swept over the weekend against Alaska. The Bakersfield Condors have lost eight-straight. For two of the three teams leaving the ECHL next season, they are going out with a whimper rather than fanfare, as they would have hoped. Luckily, the Ontario Reign were able to go ahead and make the most– they even swept Bakersfield this weekend, as Judd Blackwater had a hat-trick on Friday, then another goal on Saturday. Rocco Carzo (1g, 3a), Matt White (2g, 1a), and Gary Nunn (3a) played a supporting role as Jussi Olkinuora won both games in turning up for the playoffs.

-There’s something about the East Division. The South Carolina Stingrays finally had their 23-game win streak broken by the Indy Fuel, but were able to get back on the horse the next day. The Reading Royals had a 12-game winning streak earlier in the year and now the Florida Everblades have gotten points in 14 straight games, only losing in a shootout last weekend. All three of those teams have clinched a playoff spot, only leaving one left for Orlando and Greenville to fight over.

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SPHL

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Photo from Huntsville Havoc Facebook

-Despite having the worst record in SPHL history, the Huntsville Havoc beat the Columbus Cottonmouths twice this weekend– even though the Cottonmouths were possibly thinking ahead to the playoffs. Jordan Reed put in three goals on the weekend, while Stuart Stefan and Nick Wheeler added two assists. One of the big performances was Kevin Genoe‘s play on Saturday, as he stopped all 51 shots on Saturday night, his first of the year in the last game of the year.

-As the playoffs start on Wednesday, you can check out my first round primer for the SPHL action.

The Weekend That Was: February 6th-8th

AHL

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-Chicago Wolves’ Shane Harper took in the southern hospitality that the Charlotte Checkers gave him and he put up three goals and an assist in the two-game set in Charlotte, as the Wolves took two 4-1 wins on Friday and Saturday. With those points, Harper has already surpassed his career high last year with 33 points and did it with 20 less games. Also, thanks to two power play goals on Saturday, Harper is in a four-way tie for most power play goals in the AHL with 10 on the season. Harper also continued his point streak, which sits at nine games where he’s totaled seven goals and six assists.

-Despite the AHL’s website talking about Marek Mazanec and Magnus Hellberg carrying the weight for the Milwaukee Admirals, the Admirals had two high-scoring match-ups in their three games over the weekend. Milwaukee took both games in a home-and-home against the Rockford IceHogs and won a tight game in OT over the Rochester Americans on Sunday. The Admirals let up 11 goals in those three games, but got a lot of help offensively, especially from Viktor Stalberg— who netted four goals on the weekend and Kevin Fiala notched two goals and two assists. Reigning Rookie of the Month Viktor Arvidsson had five assists over the week, including three on Saturday. The Admirals are first in the Midwest Division and tied for second in the Western Conference while winning eight of their last 10 games.

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ECHL

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-Though it was a rough start to the season, the Alaska Aces– on the back of Greg Wolfe‘s ten-point weekend (3g, 7a) — the Aces swept a three-game series against the Stockton Thunder putting up 21 goals in that set. Not to be outdone by Wolfe, Brendan Connolly put together a nine-point weekend (4g, 5a) with Bryan Cameron adding seven points (3g, 4a). Johan Gustafsson got the wins on Friday and Saturday before being called up to the Iowa Wild, which put super-substitute Troy Redmann on the center stage getting the win on Sunday to close out the sweep.

-With two of the top-five goalies in the league– the South Carolina Stingrays were having an issue trying to get pucks in the opposition’s net. That exploded this weekend with 13 goals in two wins over Greenville and a short-handed Gwinnett. Derek DeBlois had himself a weekend with four goals on Sunday following two assists on Saturday. Captain Andrew Rowe added a goal and five assists on the weekend to help DeBlois out. In net, Adam Morrison stopped 48 of 52 shots he faced in the two wins. That put Morrison up to 2nd in GAA and 6th in save percentage in the ECHL.

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SPHL

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-With two more wins, the Mississippi RiverKings add to their six-game winning streak, which has boosted them to the 3rd spot in the SPHL standings. Leo Thomas had a goal and two assists with Linden Bahm and Matt Whitehead adding a goal and assist in the wins. Peter DiSalvo faced 41 shots an only let up one on Friday, with Adam Courchaine stopping 23 of 25 on Saturday in the home-and-home sweep of the Pensacola Ice Flyers.

-There was a power outage for the Knoxville Ice Bears as they only scored two goals in regulation/overtime in their three games, while pulling out a shootout win in one of them. Splitting against Columbus, the Ice Bears also were what helped the Pensacola Ice Flyers break their eight-game losing streak. Ryan Salvis and Jarrett Rush were the goal-scorers for the weekend with Braely Torris 123 shots and stopping 118 of them. The Ice Bears are still 2nd in the SPHL, three points clear of 3rd.

Better Know An Affiliate: St. Louis Blues

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As we get ready for the the 2014-15 season, it may be time to get yourself reacquainted with your team’s minor league affiliates and what could be in store for your team should they need a call-up or two. I’ll go through them team by team in hopes that this enlightens some people to their affiliate teams. Today, the Gateway to the West in St. Louis and the Blues are our focus, with their affiliates in Chicago, Illinois and back to Anchorage Alaska.

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CHICAGO WOLVES
Affiliate Since
: 2013-14
Distance From Parent Team (Arena to Arena): 299 miles

Last Season: 45-21-5-5, 1st in Midwest Division, 2nd in Western Conference

After missing the playoffs last year, the Wolves came back in a big way in their first year as the Blues affiliate, being only one of two teams to hit the 100-point plateau. With a balanced attack, the Wolves were able to get themselves out of the first round, but were swept in the second.

The true story for the Wolves was the stellar play of Jake Allen, who led in every goaltending category except saves, where he was 2nd. It’s no wonder that Allen won the Bastien Award for top goaltender on the season.  Allen’s 33 wins was a catalyst for the Wolves play, while back-up Matt Clime did what he could in Allen’s place, but only mustered 11 wins in his 23 appearances.

Rookie Ty Rattie made his presence known by leading the Wolves in goals and points with 31 and 48. Along with Alexandre Bolduc and Dmitrij Jaskin, they led the team with five power play goals. Minor-league journeyman Keith Aucoin also chipped in 32 assits and 43 points in his first year in Chicago. After being sent down, Adam Cracknell put up 12 goals and 25 points in his 28 games with the Wolves.

There was a lot of offensive output from the blue line, especially on special teams where Evan Oberg put up four power play goals on the year to go with his 25 points, while Taylor Chorney had two short-handed goals with his 25 points. Mid-season pick up Mark Cundari contributed 5 goals and 13 points in 24 games with the Wolves.

Leading Scorers: Ty Rattie (31g, 17a), Keith Aucoin (11g, 32a), Alexandre Bolduc (18g, 19a)

Possible Frequent Flyers: Being one of the last cuts, Rattie will be one of the top guys in the league to shuttle to and from their parent club. Also, depending on how the Blues want the defense, Brett Regner could very well be battling for the 6th or 7th defenseman up on the Blues line-up. Colin Fraser should also be brought up towards the end of the season to bring some veteran presence to the Blues line-up.

Outlook: With Jake Allen going to St. Louis, the goaltending won’t be as solid as it was with Jordan Binnington, Matt Clime, and Mike Clemente all vying for time in the cage. The Wolves will need to get the most out of Rattie as long as they have him, while hoping the newcomers like Gergo Nagy can chip in a goal or 20 in order to give support to the goaltending and defense.

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ALASKA ACES (Split with Minnesota)
Affiliate Since
: 2014-15
Distance From Parent Team (Arena to Arena): 3,723 miles

Last Season: 45-19-3-4, 1st in Mountain Division, 1st in Western Conference

The eventual Kelly Cup champions had quite the dominant year– scoring the most goals, putting up the most points in the league, and pretty much having their run of the Western Conference and league. Peter Sivak and Nick Mazzolini lead the offensive way for the Aces, both being in the top-five in league points. Sivak was tied for second in goals in the ECHL, as well. On special teams, Brendan Connolly and Evan Trupp were the top with the extra man advantage.

Defensively, Brad Richard, Drew MacKenzie, and James Martin held down the fort for the cavalcade of goalies who went through Alaska. While Mark Guggenberger was supposed to take the lead, he left the team– allowing for Gerald Coleman and then Olivier Roy to take advantage and have their time in the starter’s role.

Leading Scorers: Peter Sivak (31g, 52a), Nick Mazzolini (25g, 47a), Evan Trupp (17g, 33a)

Possible Frequent Flyers: Should his play with the extra man continue to be solid, Connolly could be getting some looks by some AHL teams, while Ross Ring-Jarvi should also get some looks after a solid return to North America after a year on Norway in 2012-13.

Outlook: This past season will be a hard act to follow, but the Aces have always been a class organization who is able to succeed regardless of the turnover the team may experience. With a dual affiliation this year, the Aces could get a solid windfall of prospects if there’s an overrun of players.